Christmas is coming. I know this, not because of the weather, which is still balmy. Not the date. I know it because last week, I saw folks with seasonal sweaters and mittens putting up Christmas decorations along Main Street, from Center Moriches to Bridgehampton.
Usually, I barely notice road workers by the side of the highway, filling orange plastic bags with litter. In some places, the workers wear matching, short-sleeved jumpsuits with zippers up the front and “county prisoner” stenciled on the back. Out here, they wear matching green work clothes and parkas with matching utility trucks and caution signs. I drive too fast to see any of their faces. Like everyone else, I usually whiz past them with a blast of exhaust that sets their pants legs flapping against their legs.
Lately, slowed down by shoppers and local stop lights that match the lights on the vehicles of our town peace officers, I heard holiday tunes and jingle bells gust through shop doors and out to the sidewalks. And I saw community spirit shared among church volunteers, civil servants, and shopkeepers all tipping over colorful barrels of décor to plug in and light the way home.
Two men were adjusting green wreaths on utility poles so that the red bows hung straight. A big guy with thighs like holiday hams was holding one end of a string of lights, while another wound the strand around the tree in front of the post office. Three more folks reached into a cardboard box, and pulled out shiny colored balls for a swag on the door of the windmill on the town green. Only two of them were really working. The third was making faces at the ball in his hand, having discovered his own reflection.
It’s not Christmas Eve and they were not children, but for a moment they could be – large children in baggy pajamas, transforming our towns with color and light so that people like me almost envy them. I waved and moved on. It’ll be weeks before I haul my own Christmas decorations from the attic. But many of my neighbors are way ahead of me. Wonder if their calendars are printed with a date that mine is missing, since they all seem to have swung into action at the same time.
I almost never see the decorations going up. One evening during the week before Thanksgiving they are simply there: lacy icicle lights dripping from the eaves of roofs, plump plastic snowmen in black hats with their arms around giant candy canes, and heavily laden Christmas trees clearly visible through windows that are curtained the rest of the year.
The display I lately admire on the way west, is an eyesore by day. The construction firm office has dented baby blue aluminum siding. It’s tiny windows stay steamed up with all the breathing, and eating and planning that goes on there throughout the year. Gaudy plastic letters hang from their sign on the little strip of grass out front. But, by night, the place is Wonderland. As I head east, it seems the satellite dish has so many colored lights on it that it looks like a beached spaceship. The roof is rimmed with lights, and the untidy lawn has become a landing strip for Santa’s sleigh and reindeer.
I imagine that there are better uses for all the money those decorations cost. I know there are children who need new shoes more than they need a plastic Santa. – But what I’m noticing this year, is the holy spark that smolders underneath all this gratuitous tinsel and voltage. At least that’s what I think it is. Because, while we believers may lament the crass commercialization of Christmas and the loss of Jesus as the reason for the season, the Holy Spirit haunts even the most secular ceremonies: a string of cheap lights to illumine the darkness, and a day off for the highway litter patrol. And God’s Spirit calls us to remember that the way things are, isn’t the way they must always be. There aren’t religious activities, but they strike me as the kinds of things Jesus might have worked into his parables. The kingdom of heaven is like a bunch of inmates set free to wreathe the town square for a party. The kingdom of heaven is like a broken-down storefront made beautiful for a child’s eyes.
There are all kinds of ways we celebrate Christmas. We gather as congregations to praise our God with ancient stories and carols, poinsettias, candle light and family greetings. We also eat too much, we spend too much, we sentimentalize too much, we worry too much. These secular and sacred excesses cannot douse the excitement, yearning, and holy instincts that underlie them. We really are hungry. We really do want to give and receive. We really do want to feel deeply, live peaceably, sleep soundly and rise renewed.
As the season moves toward its apogee, God’s presence is gifted to us, our hope, peace, love and joy. We believe we know where the holy instincts lead. And we celebrate with thanks and cheer as we wade into our cultural and consecrated traditions, knowing od is in the midst of it all. So, we rejoice! The Lord also waits and watches in expectation for our new and faithful hearts, minds, homes and sanctuaries, in which to be born.
The Peace of Christ Be With You, Jeannine